Meet Your Teens Where They Are

Ministry is great, isn’t it? The teens are always smiling and laugh at all of your jokes. They are super polite to every parent and volunteer who walks through the door. They eat all of their food and even help clean up after dinner. They never speak during the talks you give and always participate fully in small group discussions. The teens obey all rules of every game so that everyone can have a good time and receive the take-home message for the night.

What’s that you say? Your program isn’t like that? Let me try again. Here are some basic rules that nearly every teen in my program just seems to know innately. 

1. Never under any circumstances encourage your youth minister to tell jokes. This is the only time you should be absolutely silent during youth group. Allow the crickets to speak for you.

2. Complain about dinner, but fill your plate up anyway so you have something to throw at the other teens at your table. Make sure to get lots of ice as this is the most fun to toss around.

3. Avoid eye contact at all costs during small groups so you do not have to answer any questions. If called upon, ask to go to the bathroom where you can kill time on Snapchat until it’s time to go home.

4. Make up your own rules to every activity because there cannot possibly be a point to the game. In fact, your youth minister probably just picked the first game that popped into his or her head to keep you busy.

When I started working as a youth minister, I am not sure what I expected behavior-wise. I probably didn’t give it much thought until my entire Core Team (all two of them) quit during my second week, citing rude teens as the reason why. After employing several strategies like behavior contracts, having parents present, etc, I decided to re-evaluate my approach. Everything I tried was an attempt to force good behavior out of my teens. But what is the goal of youth ministry? Although perfectly well-behaved teens would be nice, that is nowhere on my list of priorities.

Number 1 Priority – Lead Teens to Christ

I want my teens to know Christ because they encounter Him in the Mass, Sacraments, and Eucharistic Adoration. I hope they encounter the face of Christ through the love and mercy shown to them by each volunteer, but especially in the way I treat them. I want the teen who feels lost or overlooked to find a community that embraces and welcomes them into the fold. I long for each boy and girl to know their dignity and self-worth stems from being a beloved child of God. I want to plant the seed that their most important goal in life is to use their time and talent to love and serve God and each other so they can spend an eternity of lasting joy and happiness with Him in Heaven.

Meet Them Where They Are

Instead of waiting for my teens to get it together and behave perfectly every time, I am going to meet each one where they are on any given Sunday. Your teens may come from pretty solid backgrounds where parents stay married, they have food and job security, nice houses and cars, and access to a good education. I promise you they are still struggling. Something is eating at them because they are caught up in this world. They are bombarded by the messages our society sells them: you deserve to feel happy. They are told to move from object to object to achieve instant gratification. Sex! Drugs! Money! The latest iPhone! Stuff! Stuff! Stuff!

I can hope and dream and pray that they will figure it out, but truthfully I may never see them get to that point. I may never see them find true happiness in the Lord or experience a grand conversion that leads them to live out their vocations to the fullest. Instead, I have been chosen to walk with them here and now. By living in the present and not waiting for some miraculous change to occur, I have an opportunity to demonstrate the multiplicative powers of God’s love. He doesn’t just love us when we aren’t sinning. He loves us despite our shortcomings and failures. Be like Him. “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” – Matthew 5:48

Be An Example of Love and Respect To Your Core Team As Well

Also, remember to extend the love and mercy of Christ to your Core Team. My volunteers that quit never returned. One of them wouldn’t even answer my calls or emails. She also pretends not to know me when I see her at Mass, but I don’t begrudge her any of that. I cannot undo the disrespect shown to her, but I can pray that this experience does not close her heart to working with teens again someday.

The ultimate goal of a ministry program should be to grow disciples who love the Lord and desire to share that love with others. A solid volunteer models this for teens both at and away from youth group. The youth minister’s role is to model this love to volunteers and teens alike. Ask yourself, was I the face of Christ today? Was I His hands? Was I His mouth?

Be Loving and Patient with Yourself Too

Make sure to extend the same love and mercy to yourself as well. We can have bad days now and then. If you are feeling stuck in a rut of bad days, I recommend Reconciliation or daily Mass as a remedy. If possible, spend time before the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Take all of your burdens to Him – disrespectful teens, lackluster volunteers, a miserly parish priest – and lay these down at His feet. God wants to give you tools for the journey. Invite Him in and keep Him at the heart of your program. You are here. Where is He?

Our job in ministry is to love the teens for who they are and where they are in their lives.

Carol Wiget

Carol Wiget is a wife, mother of three boys, and a Middle School Youth Minister at Our Lady of Sorrows in Birmingham, AL. She enjoys spending time at the beach, has a mild obsession with zombies, and hopes to be the Patron Saint of teen angst when she gets to heaven.

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